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SELECTIVE 108; NOVEMBER, 1949

 
 

 

Perhaps one of the more fitting titles in rock thus far, at least for an artist flush with winnings from his recent hit record who then attempted to parlay those stakes into a long successful career only to finish out of the winner’s circle in each race he ever ran from then on.

But that’s the fate of so many of rock’s entrants over the years, artists who got out of the gate quick and stunned the field their first time out. With that early success imbuing them with confidence they probably felt they had nothing to worry about, that they’d be stars for years to come.

Funny how quickly those stars burn out, sometimes before you even get a fix on them in the vast night sky.
 

 

Stop The Music!
Though radio was facing increased competition from television in 1949, it was still the dominant form of home entertainment… at least for a little while longer.

The biggest radio stars in the late 1940’s had, in many cases, been at the top of their profession for years. Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby… and Fred Allen.

Allen had led the nation’s rating for the 1947-1948 season and was seen as having the most intellectually comedic show on the air, his acerbic wit credited shaping the medium and bringing with it a droll cynicism that reflected the a less trusting society in the post-Depression era.

But although he was coming off his best year to date suddenly in the 1948-1949 season he faced unlikely competition… not from television, but rather from a competing radio show called Stop The Music!. The hour long program had started the previous year but really gained momentum over the summer when the regular shows went on hiatus giving it a wide open field to cultivate an audience. Its main appeal was their giving away cash prizes on the air – $20,000 worth in an era when families earned three grand for an entire year. By the fall of 1948 the show was gaining in popularity but now would be up against the new season of Fred Allen’s show in the second half hour of their time slot and so nobody really had high hopes its success would continue.

Sure enough Allen beat it in the ratings in October, the first month of the new radio season, but only by two points, a much slimmer margin than anyone anticipated. In November and December the ratings for Allen went up giving him about a three point lead, holding steady into the new year. But in January the bottom fell out. NBC lost their 8 o’clock lead in, Edgar Bergan & Charlie McCarthy to CBS, meaning the one-two punch of Bergan and Allen was broken up. To compensate NBC pushed Allen to 8 o’clock to go head to head with the first half of Stop The Music! only to get trounced. Allen’s ratings got cut in half over the second half of the year while Stop The Music! saw their ratings hold steady. It’s not so much that it did BETTER than it had been doing, but rather Allen did significantly worse in the new slot which gave the appearance that Stop The Music! was a juggernaut.

By the end of the year Allen was drawing one fifth of what he had in the fall and promptly quit the air in disgust. Far from being a long lasting hit however Stop The Music! had seen its ratings peak in March and when it moved to television the next year the phenomenon had run its course. Though it lasted for years in the new medium it never thrived, making it a brief one-year radio wonder whose long-term recognition was gained primarily because it ended Allen’s reign.

The Great Gates was, in some ways, like Stop The Music!, a brief high flyer in the spring of 1949 whose moment was all but over the moment it began.
 

I Believe I’ll Try One Time
When trying to predict who was a candidate for long term success in rock ‘n’ roll based on on just one release it’s best not to look at the record in question too much and instead focus on the attributes of the artist themselves. How many different roles do they take? Someone who was just a singer has fewer options than someone who also played an instrument and wrote the songs. If they sing do they have a… well, you know… a GOOD voice? It might help if they do.

But one of the things to be wary about is the presence of a gimmick that sells the record. A gimmick doesn’t necessarily have to be a BAD thing, like a scam, but just something unique that pushes the record to a level higher than it would otherwise have gone based on just the artistic content itself.

In the case of Late After Hours, which hit the Top Ten for The Great Gates in summer, that “something” was its relationship to a recent #1 hit by blues artist Pee Wee Crayton called Blues After Hours. In essence they were variations of a theme, or to put it more bluntly, the same song under different titles.

We went into this on the review for Gates’s debut. The song was a reworking of a longstanding popular tune by saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, After Hours which was long referred to at the time as The Negro National Anthem. In 1948 Crayton had adapted it for guitar and scored a #1 hit with it. In 1949 The Great Gates added lyrics and issued his in the rock vein.

In other words it had a built-in audience waiting for it. From that point forward however, other than whatever name recognition that first hit got him, The Great Gates was going to have to connect with new material and it’s here that his natural abilities, whether that’s songwriting, singing or just providing the appropriate enthusiasm for the band and listener to pick up on and fill in the blanks themselves, will have to take hold.

Unfortunately these are often mutually exclusive attributes, someone can write a good song but not sing it well or configure it in a way to stimulate the musicians or excite an audience, which is the fate befalling Race Track Blues, a song that gives a surprisingly in-depth look at an interesting topic without ever giving us the visceral thrill needed in a record to turn that record into a hit.
 

Went Out To The Track One Day
There are a lot of different ways to blow your money in this world. One of the most reliable methods is to wager it on the outcome of something competitive in which you are not a competitor yourself.

In something like poker you are at least betting on your own ability with cards, but with sports gambling you’re laying your money down on the actions of others. In the case of horse racing it’s not even other human beings you’re counting on, but rather another species entirely!

Maybe that eliminates some of the psychological aspects that can influence someone’s performance. If you’re betting on a basketball game who’s to say the star forward didn’t have twice the number of cocktails and half the amount of sleep recommended the night before the game and will still be struggling to overcome the ramifications of those actions by tip-off? Or maybe the quarterback of a football team had a fight with his wife after she discovered about the existence of two or three of his girlfriends scattered across the country? That costly interception in the third quarter that cost you $200 was the result of an unguarded phone which cost him his marriage and $200 million in alimony.

Horses presumably don’t have such troubles, but that doesn’t mean you should be wagering on their willingness to run around in circles with a little man sitting on top of them whipping them with a stick. Yet for as long as people have had the inclination to throw away their hard earned wages on pointless contests the track has been one of the most colorful ways in which to do so, giving The Great Gates ample themes to examine in Race Track Blues

What he comes up with is fairly strong too, giving a good sense of the beguiling mixture of hope and folly, confusion and perceived certainty that goes with gambling. The story concerns two novice gamblers who head to the track with a little money, unsure of what they’re doing but giving in to the inexorable lure of getting a windfall with just a little bit of good fortune.

Though the setting, the situation and the characters themselves are well drawn the lack of particularly good lines to convey this in a distinctive way – be mocking the absurdity, or revealing the avarice of the participants, or even taking it from the horse’s perspective of being bewildered by these human saps thinking that they, the horses, care about who wins – robs the song of something to really connect with. It comes across more as the basis for a short story than a catchy song as a result and without a resolution to the race itself it doesn’t even reward the listener’s investment in the play by play description it lays out.

In other words it works better on paper than on tape.
 

I Believe To My Soul
It’d be one thing if Gates earned the “Great” in his moniker for his singing ability and could add various colors and textures to the lines themselves by virtue of the way he sells it, lifting the plot up with impressive characterization, but his vocals are by far the weakest aspect of the record. He’s got a nasal voice to begin with and is trying to further modify his delivery to have it sound vaguely conversational, to keep it better aligned with the storytelling aspect of the song I suppose, but as a result it comes across as hesitant and uncertain at times, certainly not a smooth vocal in any sense.

As I’m sure I don’t have to tell anyone who has ever had the misfortune of knowing someone prone to telling otherwise decent stories with a draggy pace or lack of focus this approach is hardly the way for The Great Gates to be captivating and we wind up trying to almost forget him and what he’s saying so we can focus on the one remaining aspect which DOES work quite well.

The musicians.

I’ll assume they’re the same young guns he had behind him last time out, which included teenage Marvin Phillips on sax and Frankie Ervin on guitar, but Race Track Blues is a case where they deserved to be credited on the label more than The Great Gates himself, because when given the chance they really cook.

It starts off in overdrive, honking saxes playing a repetitive circular riff before taking off into an early solo which has Gates shouting encouragement from the sidelines, clapping along rhythmically to support the drumming. The guitarist is similarly using his instrument as much for a percussion instrument as a melodic one for much of this, its reverberating strings cutting through the din with a harsh presence that gives the song much of its energy.

Things really take off during the first break, which Gates kicks off by crying out, ”Jockey let it run!” – the horse racing angle, natch – as the sax spirals upwards, honking and bleating, nearly – but not quite – out of control as the hand-clapping pushes them on. It’s energetic, cacophonous and the best section of the record.

But once Gates returns everything noticeably drops. Not just the energy and enthusiasm, but the structure itself seems to fall apart. The guitar is now taking on the role of the primary responsorial support away from the sax and its playing is choppy and discordant. Gates’s lines don’t have the proper flow to them to fit neatly in the melody, as he seems to be cramming in words to get them in their places. When the sax leaps back in front for the final stretch of the race it only serves to show how much further behind everyone else has fallen.
 

If We Lose This Race…
The history of rock ‘n’ roll, like the history of most things, have a few enduring legends that need no introduction years later, but are comprised mostly of fairly anonymous entrants into the race, who may have briefly been out in front but quickly fell back to the pack and finished out of the running.

The Great Gates surely had to know this was going to be his ultimate fate, even as – like the characters in Race Track Blues – he was betting money he really couldn’t afford to lose on the remote chance for one big payday. He knows this is a long shot – even telling us if they don’t win they’ll be thumbing their way home – but rock ‘n’ roll is built on long shots after all and every so often one will pay off and convince another wave of artists to pony up at the betting window for a shot at untold riches themselves.

From our vantage point here seven decades down the road we know who made it and who didn’t, who among them were squired around in a limo after their horse came in and who were on the side of the road, thumb out, just hoping for a lift back to town.

It’s hardly surprising that The Great Gates’s thumb got a lot of work from this point forward, but while he may have lost at the races so do most others who spend their life betting on animals who are too smart to bet on humans. Surely no horse would’ve laid their oats and hay down on his career chances, whether or not he already finished in the money his first time out.

But that doesn’t mean if you have room for him in the back seat it you shouldn’t pull over and give him a ride to his next stop all the same.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of The Great Gates for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)